Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Jemaine Clement, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Adam Godley, Michael Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moniz de Sa
MPAA Rating: (for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor)
Running Time: 1:57
Release Date: 7/1/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 30, 2016
There's a very grim reality at the heart of the story of The BFG that will likely be overlooked by kids. Save for the friendly one of the title, the giants eat children. This is something that's repeatedly alluded to in Melissa Mathison's screenplay (based on the novel by Roald Dahl), but it's pretty easy to forget about that detail as the film moves from one non-child-devouring plot point to the next. One imagines children of this generation in a couple of decades from now gathering in groups and waxing nostalgic about the cultural items of their youth. When they get to the subject of this film, the conversation will likely begin, "Yeah, that's the movie about the giants who eat kids." That observation inevitably will be followed by amused shock: "I can't believe our parents let us watch that!"
This is, of course, a time-honored tradition within children's storytelling—to approach the darker elements of the world in a way that eases them into the story, while also spending as much time as possible distracting from their existence. In fact, much of the plot here revolves around the idea of sheltering a child from the horrific truth and consequences of that dark reality. That protection even goes so far as the kind giant capturing nightmares and locking them up in bottles, lest any child experience terror in the world of dreams.
Our not-as-big-but-still-considerably-large hero, a kind-hearted soul who prefers the taste of a disgusting-looking vegetable to that of youngsters, has taken poor Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) from the London orphanage where she has spent most of her life. She spots him sneaking around the city streets at night, and in order to protect the secret of the existence of giants, he brings her to Giant Country, which is, as we learn later, a location that is literally off the map. He spends the rest of the film trying to hide and protect her from his larger kin, whose names—such as Bonecruncher, Gizzardgulper, and Childchewer—give us an idea of what they would do if they were to find a "human bean" like Sophie in their midst.
The nice giant, on the other hand, likes to be called "the Big, Friendly Giant," or "BFG" as Sophie acronyms the name. BFG is played by Mark Rylance in a motion-captured performance that transcends the obvious, technological limitations of the film's visual effects. In other words, it doesn't matter that BFG looks like a computer-generated creature plastered onto the film's frames or that the way he interacts with the real, tangible world isn't quite convincing (such as whenever he picks up Sophie, for example). What does matter is that the specific quality of Rylance's performance comes through the effects. It does.
It should come as no surprise that director Steven Spielberg, one of our most effective filmmaking technicians, would realize this. Spielberg's mastery of special effects over the decades has been established, not because every effect has been perfect, but because he has a clear understanding of what specific purpose those effects have within the story.
In this case, what's vital is that the effects involving BFG communicate the amicable warmth and childlike naiveté of Rylance's performance. If there are shortcomings to the effects work when BFG is moving around his lair, they're more than compensated for whenever an almost-embarrassed smile forms at one corner of the giant's mouth, as he finds himself accepted by this little "bean" (even though she is mildly annoyed with his amusing malapropisms), or whenever we spot the sadness in the creature's eyes, as he realizes that the prospect of protecting her from harm is becoming impossible.
The plot, refreshingly, doesn't care much about plot. Mathison and Spielberg are more concerned about a sense of discovery—filling BFG's cave home with items from the human world that become something else for him (His bed is a masted ship, which rocks back and forth with his snoring) and following the giant in his regular routine. He's bullied by nine of his fellow, bigger giants, led by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement)—the ones who eat kids.
Knowing all too well about the bad things that giants do, BFG has devoted himself to bringing some happiness to the world by filling the heads of humans with sweet dreams. The film's spirit of innocent, wondrous adventure is embodied in an extended sequence in which BFG takes Sophie dream-catching. The pair dives into a lake, where they explore a mirror realm in which dreams float and dance through the air as shimmering clouds of colored light. Later, BFG brings pleasant dreams to a slumbering family, and the way Spielberg stages the scene—with BFG's narration, a shadow play on the wall in the background, and the smiling face of the dreamer in the foreground—is abundantly comforting.
Even when the film arrives at something resembling a plot, as Sophie convinces her friend that something needs to be done about the other giants, it quickly returns to its carefree mode. An impromptu meeting with the Queen (Penelope Wilton) doesn't immediately lead to the climactic confrontation with the child-snatching giants (where an impatient story would go). Instead, the film shifts to a nice but awkward breakfast, filled with sight gags (how the Queen's aids, played by Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall, set up a place for the giant to eat), uncomfortable pauses, and resolving with an entire room enjoying—and immediately regretting—a drink of BFG's favorite, fizzy beverage (For a hint as to how that decision goes, the carbonated bubbles go downward).
The BFG takes its time, appreciates the simple act of discovering the marvels of this material, and trusts that we'll go along for the ride. The film's instincts are the right ones.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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